To MOOC or Not to MOOC: That is the Question

I have been reading a lot of articles and seeing a lot of online chatter lately about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). For those who are unfamiliar with MOOCs, they refer to large online classes that are sometimes composed of thousands of students all over the world who want to learn more about a specific topic online, ranging from the Emancipation Proclamation to gender roles through comic books. I must admit that I have never taken a MOOC (I am plenty busy with my current course load, but I hope to take one someday), but I know that the general idea is for students to watch a professor’s lectures, read the required readings (if there are any), and take the exams (if there are any). At the end, students receive a certificate of completion.

MOOCs have been around since 2008, but have gained serious attention over the past year or so. Companies such as Coursera and university created programs like edX have popularized the MOOC model and have given people all around the world the opportunity to take an online course through some of the most prestigious schools in the world, including Harvard, MIT, and several others. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has lavishly praised the MOOC model, and to a certain degree he is right. Given the appalling rises in college tuition costs and a weak market for college graduates, the idea of “blending in technology to improve education outcomes in measurable ways at lower costs” is a rational starting point for discussing ways to reform college education, in my opinion.

There have been concerns among many college professors and faculty about MOOCs, however. They have suggested that MOOCs hold the possibility of destroying higher education as we know it. Professors at Amherst College showed concern about putting the Amherst brand name on an certificate of achievement for a MOOC administered by edX. Furthermore, since MOOCs are composed of thousands of students, their work is graded by computers, not actual professors, which also concerned Amherst. Even faculty at Harvard University–one of the co-creators of edX–have voiced their concerns about MOOCs and have called for a committee to review the “ethical issues” connected to them. Some professors have expressed their desire to have more oversight into how MOOCs are used at the college level. Many have also expressed concerns about the possibility of MOOCs being used to cut full time professors and/or decrease the hiring of new professors and replacing them with computer lectures.

So far, the best essay that I’ve seen describing the concerns of college professors came in the form of a letter from the philosophy department of San Jose State University to Michael Sandel, who is mentioned in the aforementioned Friedman article. In it, SJSU faculty state the following:

There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX [another MOOC program] solves, nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course. We believe that long-term financial considerations motivate the call for massively open online courses (MOOCs) at public universities such as ours. Unfortunately, the move to MOOCs comes at great peril to our university. We regard such courses as a serious compromise of quality of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case of social injustice.

In spite of our admiration for your ability to lecture in such an engaging way to such a large audience, we believe that having a scholar teach and engage his or her own students in person is far superior to having those students watch a video of another scholar engaging his or her students. Indeed, the videos of you lecturing to and interacting with your students is itself a compelling testament to the value of the in-person lecture/discussion. In addition, purchasing a series of lectures does not provide anything over and above assigning a book to read. We do, of course, respect your work in political philosophy; nevertheless, having our students read a variety of texts, perhaps including your own, is far superior to having them listen to your lectures… what kind of message are we sending our students if we tell them that they should best learn what justice is by listening to the reflections of the largely white student population from a privileged institution like Harvard? Our very diverse students gain far more when their own experience is central to the course and when they are learning from our own very diverse faculty, who bring their varied perspectives to the content of courses that bear on social justice.

I recommend reading the letter in its entirety. It is good.

While admitting that my reading on MOOCs has only recently begun, I have observed thus far a great deficiency in this ongoing debate. As we have seen, many professors have been fairly vocal about their opinions on MOOCs as they relate to the teaching profession and, to a limited degree, the students. But where are the students in this discussion?  How have MOOCs impacted their education or their job prospects? What does it mean to have a certificate of completion? Have MOOCs made any impact at all? This article shows us that for many students, learning new material isn’t necessarily the primary goal of taking a MOOC, at least those who are most dedicated to the model. It is also telling that the article is geared towards college professors and what they can learn from “Hardcore” MOOC students and not the other way around.

Well, we finally got an article today from a student who has taken a MOOC. What was the author’s conclusion? MOOCs can be rewarding, exciting, and enlightening, but they do not constitute a real college class. Perhaps before we invest large sums of money into MOOCs, we should consider the needs of students and teachers, whose views should be taken into account well before those of an outside third party company. As MOOC instructor Andy Szegedy-Maszak explains, “I’m pretty sure the current obsession with MOOCs will subside, and, I hope, administrators will then realize that such offerings can enhance but cannot substitute for in-person instruction.”

How can we use digital technology and online resources to enhance the classroom experience? The discussion continues…

Memorial Day 2013

Barton Mitchell's Headstone at Hartsville Baptist Cemetery. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Barton Mitchell’s Headstone at Hartsville Baptist Cemetery. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

I must admit that up until today, I’ve never participated in any Memorial Day services. That has changed, thankfully. As mentioned in my last post, I met up with Wisconsin history teacher Chris Lese, several of his co-workers, and about a dozen of his students at the Hartsville Baptist Cemetery in Hartsville, Indiana, for a brief Memorial Day ceremony. I met Chris a few months ago while at the Gettysburg conference back in March, and his talent for teaching history is truly inspiring. He has arranged for his group to take a nine day trek around the country following the paths of two Indiana soldiers during the Civil War. The group started here in Indiana, but are on their way to Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, and will be visiting the Antietam and Gettysburg battlefields later in their trip.

Hartsville is a very small town, numbering less than 400 people. It is in Southern Indiana and very close to the city of Columbus, which is the birthplace of racecar driver Tony Stewart and Indiana Governor Mike Pence, among other notable people. This was my first time there. While I’m not really cut out for the small-town lifestyle, I thought the area was nice. Anyway, Hartsville was a good place to hold this ceremony because it was the final town in which Union veteran Barton Mitchell lived. Mitchell is famously known as the soldier who found Special Order 191, a series of instructions written by Confederate General Robert E. Lee that were rolled up into three cigars (notice the replica Chris’s students placed on Mitchell’s headstone above) and accidentally discarded on the ground. The orders were eventually sent to General George McClellan and played a role in the Union military’s strategic planning at the Battle of Antietam. The story has been published in a million books, I’m sure, but none do it better than Bruce Catton’s fine work Mr. Lincoln’s Army, in my opinion.

The ceremony was very nice and the turnout was impressive. I’d estimate 50 people were there. A few speeches and prayers were made at the beginning, followed by a recreation of a Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Day ceremony that included the use of a GAR Memorial day booklet from 1895. Towards the end “Taps” was played, followed by a decoration of Mitchell’s grave, as seen above.

When I first arrived in Hartsville, I was given directions to the wrong cemetery. Nonetheless, Hartsville College Cemetery is beautiful.

Hartsville College Cemetery. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Hartsville College Cemetery. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

Several volunteers graciously donated their time to help during the ceremony.

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

There are other Civil War soldiers at the cemetery whose graves were decorated as well. Lafayette Trisler was 18 years old when he enlisted in the 33rd Indiana Infantry in 1862. Tragically, he died during the war on July 21, 1863. The National Park Service’s Soldiers and Sailors database states that the 33rd was in Middle Tennessee or Tullhoma from June 23-July 7. They then moved to Guy’s Gap in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, shortly thereafter. Since his regiment wasn’t in battle, I’d assume Trisler died either from disease or a previously acquired battle wound.

The Headstone of Lafayette Trisler. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
The Headstone of Lafayette Trisler. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

I am glad that we as nation continue to observe Memorial Day, but I’ll be even happier when we no longer have to bury soldiers like Lafayette Trisler into the ground at such a young age. It would be great if someday we could observe Memorial Day and say something along the lines of this:

“We are here to honor those who fought and died for our country from 1775-2013. Their sacrifices have given us a loving, peaceful nation today that is no longer in the throes of war and a shining example to the rest of the world. For that, we give our dead our eternal gratitude.”

I can dream.

Memorial Day Weekend Activities

I’m in St. Louis for a brief visit with my family and a concert. Tonight I am going to the Firebird to see El Ten Eleven, one of my favorite groups in the music scene right now. I have never heard an instrumental group quite like them, nor have I seen such an effective use of looping to create such dynamic soundscapes. It is sort of sounds like heaven to me.

One of my favorite songs is “My Only Swerving,” which you can watch on YouTube below. It is amazing.

I was wanting to go the Indy 500 on Sunday, but changed my mind at the last minute. Maybe next year. I will be back in Indiana for Memorial Day, however, because I’ll be meeting Wisconsin history teacher Chris Lese and his students in Hartsville at the grave of Barton Mitchell, who should be familiar to those who study the Civil War, specifically the battle of Antietam. I am not 100% sure what the group’s plans are for the day, but I look forward to visiting the grave, meeting Chris’s students, and learning more about Memorial Day.

Have a great holiday weekend.


Public History: History for Everyone

The Indiana State House. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Indiana State House. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I had an interesting learning experience at work today. While giving a tour of the Indiana State House to a school group from a small, rural Indiana town, one of the teachers came up to me and thanked me for giving her students this tour. I got the impression that she was sort of thanking me for taking these rural kids seriously as learners and scholars, which makes me sad that others don’t. Most of these kids, she said, had never been outside the boundaries of their hometown, so this was a special experience for them. She then went on to explain that for some of the adult chaperones on the tour, this was their first time at the State House since the fourth grade. For others, it was their first time at this building, ever.

These comments really struck me. For one, I find it fascinating that despite our ability to travel almost anywhere on the globe within roughly 72 hours, many people spend their bulk of their lives–if not their entire life–in one area, town, or city. Much of this is undoubtedly due to economic constraints, but much of this is also due to personal choice.

Second, it provided a new insight for me about public history. In my graduate classes, we often speak of the need for public historians to address multiple audiences. Different audiences have different learning abilities, different questions, different perspectives, and different things they want to learn from public historians. But this tour was unique. Since many of the adults had never been to the State House, they were learning about the building alongside their fourth grade children. They had little prior knowledge of the building’s history, nor did they have much understanding of how state government functions, I’d assume. Everyone was sort of on an equal learning level, so it was a rare tour in which my “audiences” blended into one “audience.” One of the great things about public history is its potential to teach history to people of all ages, and with this tour it was a special experience in which adults and children learned about the past together. How often do adults and children get a chance to learn together, beyond watching something on TV? These sorts of moments are rare, but they are one reason why museums, National Parks, and other public spaces hold such an important place in our culture (I’d like to think so, at least).

When I first started working at the State House, there was definitely a “wow” factor that captivated my attention and excited me. As time has gone on, however, it has gotten easier for me to take the building (and my employment there) for granted. I’ve gotten used to coming to work at this building, and while its beauty and history continues to amaze me, my amazement has taken on a different meaning that is hard to explain in words. In sum, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to replicate the feelings I had when I first walked into the building and realized this was my workspace.

As a public historian, I must always remind myself that the people and audiences who take my tours are oftentimes experiencing the same feelings I had when I first started working at the State House. For them, this experience is new, unusual, and awe-striking. Additionally, this may be the final time these people will ever come to this building. Although I interpret a space that I interact with and experience on a frequent basis, I must capture the excitement and energy of my first-experience audiences and turn those feelings into constructive learning opportunities. Although I may sometimes tire of giving the same tour or be distracted by something not related to work, I must be mentally prepared to give my “A game” every time, because it’s the first time for the audience. It all reminds me of a touring rock band. Yes, you’ve played the same set repeatedly, but your audience is seeing it for the first time. What are you going to do to capture their attention?

The people who are taking my tours have entrusted me with a small amount of time in which to teach about and give meaning to the past, and that is extremely important to me. Seen in this light, we can see that public historians have an awesome responsibility to their audiences, a responsibility that challenges us to constantly brainstorm for the best ways to effectively engage our audiences and inspire them to learn more about the past on their own. It doesn’t really matter whether you work at a state capitol, the Gettysburg battlefield, or a small historic home. We owe it to our audiences to give them our best tours, which includes doing historical background research, experimenting and tweaking tour presentations, and asking our audiences the right questions.  These tours may be the only time our audiences visit these places. For adults, this may be the only post-education instance in which they learn about history.

When we blend good history with good storytelling and good presentation, we create history that has the potential to show our audiences the importance of the past in our daily lives.

Teaching Historical Methods in the K-12 Classroom: A Question

Michael Bay, what historical sources did you use for "Pearl Harbor?" "I saw 'Top Gun' once. That was about Pearl Harbor, right?!"
Michael Bay, what historical sources did you use for “Pearl Harbor?” “I saw ‘Top Gun’ once. That was about Pearl Harbor, right?!”

As mentioned on my About page, I’m currently working for the Indiana State House as a Tour Guide for the Capitol Tour Office. It has been a wonderful experience and I truly appreciate having the privilege of educating thousands of Hoosier children about Indiana history. I’ve also talked with many teachers and will often ask them what the students are learning in class. The time constraints of the tour usually prevent us from having detailed discussions, but it is interesting to hear what books are being used in class and what ideas/events in history are being emphasized by teachers.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the process of teaching historical methods in the k-12 classroom, and I’ve made a observation about my own schooling that I don’t think I’ve understood until now. I would be extremely curious to see if anyone else–whether you graduated high school in 1923 or in 2013–has made the same observation as me.

Growing up, I learned about several different methods for understanding and demonstrating my knowledge of specific topics in school. In English class, I remember filling out many worksheets that helped me better understand the methods of reading and writing the English language (although I admit that I am still bad with my commas). As much as I wanted to write stories and do “fun stuff” like creative writing, my English teachers always made sure we understood our methods first. In Math class, we always did practice problems and spent a copious amount of time learning about the methods behind math before taking any assignments or tests. In Science class, of course, we learned about the Scientific Method. Collecting data. Making a hypothesis. Testing the hypothesis via experimentation, so on and so forth. As much as I wanted to do “fun stuff” like animal dissections in Science, my teachers always made sure to teach us the importance of understanding the proper methodology for conducting science experiments. Even in my Physical Education class, I remember that I always had to stretch out before we played any games. If we didn’t stretch, we could hurt ourselves.

So I though about my social studies classes and the study of historical methods, and I can safely say that I never received any training on historical methods. None. Wait, I did learn somewhere down the line what the difference between a primary and secondary source was. But that’s it. I never once learned what an archive was or how a manuscript is different from a printed publication. I never once went to an archive because I was completely ignorant of its existence in the first place. I never learned about any prominent historians who shaped and changed the field of history, even though I learned about Mendel and Copernicus in Science, Descartes in Math, and Twain, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Harper Lee in English. I never learned about different schools of historical study such as “social history” or “political history.” I was never challenged to think critically about history beyond that hackneyed phrase about the doom of repeating history if we don’t understand it properly. I never learned how to “think historically” in the way that Sam Wineburg describes in his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. I do remember seeing Pearl Harbor my Junior year of high school, however, so I did learn about Michael Bay. Maybe that counts for something?

Granted, my memories of my k-12 education are not the same as they were when I was younger, but I really don’t think I’m exaggerating here. When I began my student teaching in the spring of 2011, I was never encouraged to talk about historical methods or why we study history in the first place with my students, and I don’t think of any the teachers at that school district teach anything regarding historical methods to their students today. However, that may not be their fault entirely. Just to double check myself, I went to view the Orchard Farm school district’s curriculum. I checked the social studies education standards for grades 4 and 8-12 and could not find a single standard related to historical methods. Why is this?

I realize that my experience is one of many, and that some have had experiences that are different than mine. Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory is always sharing his lesson plans with his readers, and I know he’s doing some excellent things with his students. However, I also realize that he works at a very elite private school that gives him fairly wide leverage to shape and determine the direction of the classroom. I wish more teachers had that sort of freedom.

Do most students today learn about historical methods in their k-12 social studies classes? Did you learn anything in your classes that helped provide you tools for doing your own historical research in and outside the classroom?

How Do Americans Understand Revolution?

Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian recently appeared on Bill Maher’s show to discuss U.S. foreign policy and our current situation in the Middle East. I don’t watch Bill Maher, but I found this discussion fascinating for several different reasons. For one, Greenwald takes exception to Maher’s generalizations about Islam, specifically that it is a uniquely violent and destructive religion. Greenwald contends that Maher’s premise is mistaken, and attempts to explain why. You can watch the video below and make your own conclusions about it.

Beyond the Middle East discussion, I was really intrigued by Charles Cooke’s suggestion that Americans have a problem thinking about revolution as bloody, violent, and chaotic. He believes the American Revolution was “great” and that the American Revolution was an exceptional revolution in the sense that the postwar years were relatively stable compared to other revolutions. Joy Reid responds by saying that the American Revolution was not exceptional and that it was not “great,” especially if you were slave (and, I would add, a slave that pledged allegiance to the British after they promised freedom to slaves who agreed to fight for the loyalists). Oh, and that nasty Civil War in the 1860s was a result of the flaws of the Constitution, wasn’t it?

The revolution discussion starts with a bit of context setting by Maher around 5:27.

I’m not sure I agree with Cooke when he suggests that American and British people have a problem understanding the violent nature of revolution, and I think his argument highlights the tensions surrounding the ongoing debate regarding whether or not America is an exceptional nation. But wasn’t the American Revolution a “massive step forward”? If so, does the American government have an obligation to support revolution abroad, so that other countries are able to have their “massive step forward” too?

Just some food for thought. Happy Mothers Day!

“Are you for the Union or opposed to it?”

GAR veterans from Garland Post 423, Waveland, Indiana. Photo courtesy of 40th Indiana:
GAR veterans from Garland Post 423, Waveland, Indiana, around the turn of the 20th century. Photo courtesy of 40th Indiana:

The American Tribune was a veteran’s newspaper based out of Indianapolis, Indiana. An organ of the Grand Army of the Republic, the paper operated from roughly 1888-1906 and was fairly popular with “Western” veterans in states like Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. The Library of Congress lists only three libraries in the entire United States that have any sort of collection from the Tribune, so I’m pretty lucky to have this resource in my neck of the woods at the Indiana State Library for my thesis.

I haven’t gone through the entire collection (which is on microfilm), but I’ve compiled a nice collection of more than one hundred articles from the paper that cover a wide range of subjects, including pension legislation, the Lodge Bill, Patriotic instruction in schools, the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, and a long series of articles in 1890 debating who was at fault for the massive death toll at Andersonville Prison. The paper also had a vocal editorial section that frequently lashed out at former Confederates and those who held “Lost Cause” sentiments. For instance, an editorial from March 3, 1892, criticized “Ex-Rebel Blowhards” for allegedly falsifying the numbers of soldiers who had fought on each side of the conflict. It appears the numbers were being used by some Lost Cause advocates to argue that the Union military won an unfair fight thanks to an abundance of men and resources. In response, the American Tribune bluntly stated:

It is well known to nearly everyone who knows anything about the strength of the two armies that the number in each… [was] nearly equal, and while we do not not desire to underestimate the valor and fighting qualities of the Ex-Confederates, we must be pardoned for stating that the man who in this day, with the record of the Civil War before him, will pretend or assert that any given number of Confederates proved themselves superior to the same number of Union troops during the late war, is a “blowhard” and an ignoramus.

By 1902, the paper devoted less space to political issues. Discussions regarding the Civil War focused more on telling stories of Unionist valor and honor rather than criticisms of the Lost Cause. More time was also spent on “proper” farming techniques and funding a “colonization” movement to Oklahoma, which I am still learning about. However, editorials continued to occasionally reflect on and promote a Unionist interpretation of the war, its causes, and its consequences. Last week I came across an interesting editorial from May 15, 1902, that adroitly captured the views of many GAR veterans when it came to establishing a proper “title” for the Civil War. To wit:

No expression can be more misleading or untrue to the facts of history than the designations, “The War Between the States,” [or] The War Between the North and South,” as applied to the great rebellion of 1861-1865. That fearful conflict was not a civil war; it was not a conflict between the North and the South; it was not a war between the States as such, and ought not to be designated…Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Maryland and West Virginia, all Southern States, gave as many soldiers, if not more, to the Union cause than they did the Confederate… These [215,546, according to the paper] soldiers, all of whom were white, were reinforced during the closing days of the rebellion by 96,033 colored men who wore the blue. [It was actually more than that].    

In the Northern States were a class of men known as Copperheads, Knights of the Golden Circle, etc,. whose sympathies were decidedly Southern but whose courage[,] as with Tories always, was not strong enough to place them at the forefront of the Southern army… Loyalty in the South cost something. The leading question at the opening of the war was adroitly put, “Are you for the North or the South?” This was not the issue, but “Are you for the Union or opposed to it?“… No orator’s silver-tongued eloquence, no writer’s pen…can even approximately do justice to the gallant men and women in the Southern states, and especially in the mountain fastnesses of West Virginia. North Carolina, East Tennessee and Northern Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi who staked their lives, their property and their sacred honor upon the altar of their common country.

As Brad Paisley’s recent song “Accidental Racist” has shown us, many people today continually fail to make the appropriate distinction between the words “Confederate” and “Southerner.” As this editorial shows, many GAR veterans believed they had gone to war against a government that was supported by people from all parts of the United States. Destroying the Confederacy–not the South–was their primary goal. This essay forces us to ask what we mean when we refer to the South. What is the South? Is there more than one South? What are the geographical boundaries of the South? Are states like Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia actually Southern? Who can call themselves a Southerner? Do people who wave the Confederate flag today actually demonstrate “Southern Pride,” or are they merely demonstrating “Confederate Pride?”


“Exploring Indianapolis” is Now Live

After a semester of intense research, I am proud to announce that my final project for digital history has now gone live on the interwebs. If you have a few minutes, please check out the site, which is a walking tour/history of downtown Indianapolis entitled Exploring Indianapolis: Walking Tours of Canals, Trains & Cars at the Crossroads of America.

The requirements for our project can be found here. We used a WordPress platform to design the site and created digital maps of our walking tours that are viewable through Google Maps and Google Earth. Eager to learn more about the history of transportation in Indianapolis, each member of the project spent the semester analyzing one element of Indianapolis transit in a collective effort to better understand what it means to form a civic identity around the slogan “Crossroads of America,” a slogan the people of Indianapolis have proudly proclaimed for many years. My section of the website focuses on the National Road.

I would surmise that part of the group’s interest in transit stemmed from the heated debate at the Indiana State House regarding the possibility of a new and revamped public transit system in downtown Indianapolis. After much discussion during the recently concluded legislative session, the Indy Transit Bill continues to sit in limbo. Some legislators are calling for more studies to analyze how the bill will be funded, but others fear that continued “studies” will lead to bill’s eventual death. “Exploring Indianapolis” does not explicitly advocate for or against the Transit Bill, but we hope visitors to the site are able to see how transportation in Indianapolis has changed over time and how we got to be in the position we are now.

This project couldn’t have been done without the great work of Jenny Kalvaitis and Noah Goodling, who were my partners on the project. They are excellent public historians who I am also proud to call my friends.

Until next time…

Censorship and Higher Education: Some Thoughts

Democracy Plaza at IUPUI. Photo by Curtis Ailes. Website:
Democracy Plaza at IUPUI. Photo by Curtis Ailes. Website:

In 2007, Keith John Sampson, a janitor and student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI, the school I go to today), was found guilty by campus administration of racial harassment after reading a book about the Klu Klux Klan that had a cover with Klansmen burning crosses on the front of it. One of Sampson’s co-workers found the book offensive, apparently. IUPUI officials stated that Sampson had been “openly reading a book [Yes, that’s how you read a book. It can’t be closed.] related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject.”

IUPUI officials later rescinded the charge and apologized to Sampson for their actions. It is clear that in this particular instance, the school administration was out of line and did not treat Sampson fairly. Ironically, Sampson had checked out the book at the university library, which makes the case even more absurd. You can watch a short documentary on Sampson’s story below, although I will preface by stating that 1. The term “politically correct” is meaningless and shouldn’t be in the title of this film, and 2. We don’t get a chance to hear from Sampson’s accuser and their side of the story. That is quite problematic, in my opinion.

Back in November, nationally syndicated columnist George F. Will picked up on this story and used it to lament the loss of free speech on college campuses across the nation. This is strange, because the Sampson case has nothing to do with freedom of speech. It’s a case over the freedom to read what one chooses. I do think Will is correct in pointing out that many schools have a liberal bias. Few would disagree with that. But liberal bias does not equate to censorship, nor are all schools liberally biased (although all schools and the people running those institutions are biased, because all people are biased). Censorship is something that needs to be taken seriously on college campuses, but I don’t think George Will is the right person to lead this crusade against censorship on college campuses. He is clearly mistaken on how a college campus operates. To wit:

[The Sampson case] reflects the right never to be annoyed, a new campus entitlement. Legions of administrators, who now outnumber full-time faculty, are kept busy making students mind their manners, with good manners understood as conformity to liberal politics. Liberals are most concentrated and untrammeled on campuses, so look there for evidence of what, given the opportunity, they would do to America.

Really? I have never had a faculty member or administrator at IUPUI force me to “mind my manners,” nor have I been forced to conform to “liberal politics,” and I have no clue what “good manners” means in this context. Furthermore, it is actually tough to get in contact with some administrators on campus, not the other way around. The last statement in bold is just silly and loaded with a bunch of fear-mongering.

Will then cites a book by Greg Lukianoff entitled Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate to argue that liberal censorship is rampant. I have not read the book, so I will not comment on it, but the book description contradicts Will’s case. The book, we are told, chronicles instances of censorship run amok. These include “a student in Georgia expelled for a pro-environment collage he posted on Facebook” [Liberal Bias?], “students at Yale banned from putting an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote on a T shirt” [Liberal Bias?], and “public controversies involving Juan Williams, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, Larry Summers—even Dave Barry and Jon Stewart” [all conservatives, right?]. Seems to me that while Lukianoff is determined to end censorship of all kinds, Will is only interested in ending censorship by liberals.

Then we get this business about “free speech zones,” which Will describes as such:

Many campuses congratulate themselves on their broad-mindedness when they establish small “free-speech zones” where political advocacy can be scheduled. At one point Texas Tech’s 28,000 students had a “free-speech gazebo” that was 20 feet wide. And you thought the First Amendment made America a free-speech zone.

Here, Will falsely assumes that because free speech zones were established on college campuses, free-speech doesn’t exist on other parts of campus. I had never heard of “free speech zones” until I came to IUPUI, where there are several locations. The most prominent is called Democracy Plaza. The reasons for establishing a free speech zone are described as such:

Democracy Plaza at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis was created with the purpose of providing students, faculty, and staff with an opportunity to express, speak, and hear diverging thoughts surrounding social, political, economic, and religious issues relevant to the campus, city, state, country, and world. The project was started in the summer of 2004 when a group of students, faculty, and staff at IUPUI worked together to address the benefits and drawbacks of a physical structure outside of the traditional walls of academia that would seek to host a common area for students, faculty, and staff across the array of disciplines.

In my opinion, “free speech zones” exist because the sheer volume of students and faculty can be overwhelming for students on campus. This problem is particularly acute at urban campuses like IUPUI, where the vast majority of students are commuters who have few opportunities to establish an on-campus community of friends and associates. Finding connections beyond the classroom has been a struggle for many people at IUPUI, myself included. Furthermore,  IUPUI does not have a school newspaper, which I find to be a great shame. In reality, Democracy Plaza acts as a small mechanism in which to facilitate dialogue and new relationships between a wide range of people.

I should also add that “conservative bias” exists in some academic institutions. My Alma matter (a private school, mind you) was under fire last year for supporting a campus religious group that was allegedly engaged in intimidation towards certain individuals and groups on campus. Furthermore, I have heard from friends still enrolled at the university that the campus IT department has recently blocked access to websites with information on birth control and even Netflix. To be sure, Lindenwood University is a fine institution, one that is rapidly improving and that did a lot to help push my career forward. I cite Lindenwood to merely point out that “bias” runs both ways, and that censorship is something to be taken seriously in all academic institutions–public and private–regardless of their political tendencies. We should also remember that if real racism occurred in the Sampson case and IUPUI had done nothing about it, the criticism would be towards IUPUI for their inaction. Academic institutions hear claims of mistreatment from their student bodies on a constant basis, and in each case academic administrators must decide whether or not to take disciplinary action. Sometimes they really screw up. Does that mean a culture of censorship actually exists on most campuses?